Wash­ing­ton Watch Sen­ate passes a dumb and dan­ger­ous bill

Kuwait Times - - ANALYSIS - By Dr James J Zogby

This week, with­out de­bate or an ac­tual vote, the US Sen­ate stealth­ily passed a dis­turb­ing and dan­ger­ous piece of leg­is­la­tion in­tro­duced by Sen­a­tors Tim Scott (R-SC) and Bob Casey (D-PA). Called “The Anti-Semitism Awareness Act of 2016” (AAA), the Scott-Casey bill re­quires the De­part­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion (DOE) to ap­ply the State De­part­ment’s (DOS) def­i­ni­tion of anti-Semitism in eval­u­at­ing com­plaints of dis­crim­i­na­tion on US cam­puses.

The DOS def­i­ni­tion of and guide­lines on an­tiSemitism were de­signed to help US of­fi­cials mon­i­tor anti-Semitism abroad. They were not in­tended to be ap­plied to po­lice speech on col­lege cam­puses here in the US. In de­vel­op­ing their def­i­ni­tion and guid­ance, the DOS adopted lan­guage used by the Euro­pean Union Mon­i­tor­ing Cen­ter on Racism and Xeno­pho­bia (EUMC),

“Anti-Semitism is a cer­tain per­cep­tion of Jews, which may be ex­pressed as ha­tred to­ward Jews. Rhetor­i­cal and phys­i­cal man­i­fes­ta­tions of an­tiSemitism are di­rected to­ward Jewish or non-Jewish in­di­vid­u­als and/or their prop­erty, to­ward Jewish com­mu­nity in­sti­tu­tions and re­li­gious in­sti­tu­tions”.

This de­scrip­tion of anti-Semitism is both cor­rect and in­struc­tive, as are sev­eral ex­am­ples of con­tem­po­rary anti-Semitism men­tioned in the DOS guid­ance, in­clud­ing: “ac­cus­ing Jews, as a peo­ple, of be­ing re­spon­si­ble for real or imag­ined wrong­do­ing com­mit­ted by a sin­gle Jewish per­son or group, the State of Is­rael, or even for acts com­mit­ted by non-Jews”; or “mak­ing men­da­cious, de­hu­man­iz­ing, de­mo­niz­ing, or stereo­typ­i­cal al­le­ga­tions about Jews - or the power of Jews - as a col­lec­tive”. These and other ex­am­ples cited in the guid­ance are ob­jec­tively anti-Semitic and patently wrong.

Where the DOS guid­ance goes “off the rails” is when they try to ex­pand the def­i­ni­tion to in­clude “anti-Semitism rel­a­tive to Is­rael”, cit­ing, as ex­am­ples, speech that de­mo­nizes or dele­git­imizes Is­rael or that ap­plies a dou­ble stan­dard to Is­rael. The ex­am­ple given for ap­ply­ing a “dou­ble stan­dard for Is­rael” is “re­quir­ing ... be­hav­ior[ of Is­rael] not ex­pected or de­manded of any other demo­cratic na­tion”. With this ex­pan­sion of the def­i­ni­tion of anti-Semitism, the guid­ance be­comes both sub­jec­tive and open to dan­ger­ous abuse by those who would use it to si­lence crit­i­cism of Is­rael.

This lan­guage is so vague and open to in­ter­pre­ta­tion that when the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia Board of Re­gents was be­ing pressed to ap­ply the DOS guid­ance to Cal­i­for­nia cam­puses, the lead au­thor of the EUMC def­i­ni­tion of anti-Semitism ob­jected, point­ing out the dan­gers this would present to free speech, say­ing that “en­shrin­ing such a def­i­ni­tion on a col­lege cam­pus is an ill-ad­vised idea that will make mat­ters worse, and not only for Jewish stu­dents; it would also dam­age the univer­sity as a whole”.

In short re­marks in­tro­duc­ing their bill, the two sen­a­tors pre­sented it as an ef­fort to pro­tect Jewish stu­dents from the scourge of anti-Semitic ha­rass­ment. They told sto­ries of pro-Is­rael Jewish stu­dents liv­ing in fear on their cam­puses. In­ter­est­ingly, how­ever, when the DOE’s civil rights unit in­ves­ti­gated re­ports of wide­spread anti-Semitism cre­at­ing a hos­tile en­vi­ron­ment on spe­cific cam­puses, the DOE teams found the charges largely base­less.

If the bill is dan­ger­ous and even un­nec­es­sary, then why did Scott and Casey do it? And why did they rush to pass it with­out de­bate or dis­cus­sion? Read­ing the “fact sheet” Scott and Casey at­tached to their leg­is­la­tion re­veals the AAA’s sin­is­ter politi­cal in­tent - and that is, si­lenc­ing cam­pus stu­dent move­ments and ac­tiv­i­ties that are crit­i­cal of Is­rael, in par­tic­u­lar the Boy­cott, Di­vest­ment, and Sanc­tion move­ment (BDS). Seen in this light the AAA is but an ex­ten­sion of other leg­isla­tive ef­forts in Congress and, at last count, 22 state leg­is­la­tures to ei­ther ban or pe­nal­ize in­di­vid­u­als or en­ti­ties that par­tic­i­pate in any forms of BDS against the State of Is­rael.

All of this is wrong on so many lev­els. It has the US gov­ern­ment un­fairly in­flu­enc­ing a nec­es­sary de­bate that is tak­ing place on col­lege cam­puses weigh­ing in to sup­port one side, while threat­en­ing the other side if they cross an un­de­fined and ar­bi­trary line.

These ef­forts tell Pales­tinian and pro­gres­sive Jewish stu­dents that their speech will be po­liced and that they may be sub­ject to penal­ties. If stu­dents were to call Is­raeli Prime Min­is­ter Ne­tanyahu “a mon­ster” or ac­cuse him and the Is­raeli mil­i­tary of “a bar­baric as­sault on Gaza” - would they be ac­cused of “de­mo­niz­ing”? Or what if stu­dents spoke about Is­rael’s 1948 “eth­nic cleans­ing” of Pales­tini­ans or fo­cused their politi­cal work on crit­i­ciz­ing Is­rael’s oc­cu­pa­tion of Pales­tinian lands, but said noth­ing about (or maybe didn’t even care to know about) Tur­key’s oc­cu­pa­tion in Cyprus or Rus­sia’s in Crimea and East­ern Ukraine could they be charged with dele­git­imiz­ing Is­rael or ap­ply­ing a “dou­ble stan­dard”?

At the same time that these ef­forts will act to in­tim­i­date and si­lence pro-Pales­tinian ac­tiv­ity on cam­puses, they will also serve to em­bolden pro-Is­rael stu­dent groups to file re­peated com­plaints against BDS and pro-Pales­tinian or­ga­ni­za­tions.

What I am find most ironic here is the de­gree to which this en­tire dis­cus­sion has turned re­al­ity up­side down. I un­der­stand aw­ful and hurt­ful things have been said and that some pro-Is­rael stu­dents may feel “un­com­fort­able” in some in­stances, or that the BDS de­bate on their cam­puses may make them feel like they are in a “hos­tile” en­vi­ron­ment. But it is inex­cus­able to ig­nore the ha­rass­ment and threats and defama­tion en­dured by any stu­dents who are ad­vo­cat­ing for Pales­tinian rights. Of­ten­times, they are the ones oper­at­ing in a hos­tile en­vi­ron­ment. They are the ones tar­geted by well-funded cam­paigns and sub­jected to threats and ha­rass­ment. And when Arab Amer­i­cans write opin­ion pieces in school news­pa­pers, the com­ments’ sections are filled with big­otry and hate.

The bot­tom line is that there are times when the de­bate has be­come ugly and stu­dents on all sides have crossed the line. When this oc­curs, what univer­si­ties should be ad­dress­ing the need for greater ci­vil­ity in our politi­cal dis­course and help­ing to cre­ate an en­vi­ron­ment that en­cour­ages open­ness to de­bat­ing con­tro­ver­sial is­sues. That’s what we need. What we don’t need is a ham-fisted ef­fort by sen­a­tors to si­lence de­bate which will only cre­ate more hos­til­ity and less ci­vil­ity.

NOTE:

Dr James J Zogby is the Pres­i­dent of the Arab Amer­i­can In­sti­tute

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